By Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
On May 15, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Georgians from Abkhazia in 1994. It seemed that the international community was finally paying attention to a conflict that, for reasons of political convenience, had been frozen for a decade and a half.
Tbilisi had been suggesting peace plans for Abkhazia as well as for South Ossetia for years, but no Georgian government could agree to settle the issue of separatism by accepting the outcome of referendums on independence in areas depopulated by force. In Abkhazia alone, militias enjoying Russian military support while using ethnicity as a cover expelled 80 percent of the population. The recognition of the 400,000 internally displaced persons' right of return a few months ago was an important diplomatic milestone toward solving a core issue of Georgia's two conflicts with separatists backed by Moscow.
In addition, Georgia had been focusing on developing the vicinity of the breakaway areas, creating incentives for people there to look toward Tbilisi rather than Moscow. Around Tskhinvali, the administrative capital of South Ossetia, the cleanup against smuggling started showing positive results, with young and old crossing checkpoints into Tbilisi-controlled areas to attend schools, see doctors, or simply work in a country that has been rated the top reformer by the World Bank.
Making Georgia attractive worked for the ordinary people who have always lived together in mixed situations. It did not work for the separatist elites who lived on smuggling and patronage rather than on economic development and political participation.
When Moscow's satraps in Tskhinvali realized they were losing influence among the population, they opted for escalation. The Kremlin's men on the spot had been violating everything from cease-fire agreements to Georgian airspace for many years. To prepare for supporting ground operations, Moscow arranged for maneuvers to be held in the North Caucasus. Separatist militias targeted Georgian police with roadside bombs. They increasingly terrorized the local population by shooting, looting and raiding, up to the point that farmers demanded stronger protection by the Georgian government. Moscow continued handing out Russian passports, dispossessing residents of their Georgian citizenship while creating a fictitious "Russian" entitled to the Kremlin's protection.
Despite the collusion between separatist militias and so-called Russian peacekeepers, Georgian State Minister Temuri Yakobashvili went to Tskhinvali early on August 7 to meet with separatist leaders; none of them showed up. Instead, the Russian commander of the peacekeeping forces, Murat Kulakhmetov, received him, stating that the Russian forces had lost control over the militias in South Ossetia. That was when the escalation began, with Russian material and personnel moving quickly through the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus chain into the area of Tskhinvali and from there onward to Gori and the rest of Georgia.
This conflict was not really about South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Rather, it was about a country that over the last eight years has become increasingly intolerant internally and openly belligerent externally: Vladimir Putin's Russia. While initially media and politicians worldwide took the conflict as a local incident, they quickly realized that the silent cold war going on since Putin's takeover in late 1999 had just entered its hot phase. The Russian invasion of Georgia aimed at reversing "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," as Putin called the demise of the Soviet Union. In one word: Little Georgia does matter, but it matters even more now that the bigger picture is becoming clearer around the world. Putin's "petro-state" is turning into a political project of national aggrandizement with global outreach.
Russia has not only been threatening, blackmailing and - now in the case of Georgia - occupying neighboring countries, it has also been trying to reclaim its status as a great power beyond the borders of the infamous "near abroad." For three reasons, the area where Russian ambitions and local expectations appear most to coincide seems to be the Middle East.
First, Russia has been playing in the Middle East on old Cold War sympathies. It makes the Arab street and wide circles of uninformed but opinion-shaping actors believe that the past glory of the Soviet superpower is still alive. It actively plays on anti-Americanism, promoting the concept that the days of confrontation with the United States were in fact the good old days.
At the ideological level, Russia made its entry as a Muslim nation by becoming a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Supported by various Arab states, this has facilitated Russia's whitewashing of its negative record in the wider Middle East. Gone are the days when Arab mujaheddin fought against Moscow's wars in Afghanistan or even more recently in Chechnya, where a quarter of the population was annihilated. Likewise, throughout the Levant in particular, the Kremlin supports the Russian Orthodox Church, utilizing its clergy to counterbalance the largely Greek hierarchy.
At the secular end, Moscow cultivates friendship associations that regroup tens of thousands of graduates from former Soviet universities. Many among them are deeply convinced that Moscow's antagonism to Washington will benefit the Palestinian cause. Russia Today - by satellite television and online - carefully underlines this topic.
Second, as with its image strategy in Europe, the Kremlin presents itself as a reliable partner in business and politics: as modern and efficient as anybody else but not seeking to dominate the region. Russia consults with the oil countries of the Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia, on production figures and target prices. In addition, the Kremlin is silently building up a gas cartel resembling OPEC, with emphasis on Qatar, Iran, Algeria and Egypt. Qatar ranks high on the Russian list of priorities, not only because there were complications resulting from the murder by Russian agents of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbayev in Doha in 2004. More importantly, the tiny Gulf state has the potential to compete with Russia in the global gas market. While the Kremlin commands a pipeline network based on long-term contracts and pricing, Doha is investing in liquefied natural gas that can be delivered by ship to any place in the world with re-gasification installations.
Keeping energy prices high is a key concern for Russia: Its upstream operations are more costly than in the Gulf Arab states, and it was income from extractive industries that allowed Moscow to flex its muscles in the first place. Maintaining a high price level also serves the purpose of converting Arab petrodollars into Russian arms sales. With this, Moscow benefits twice from soaring energy prices.
Third, just as Russia has painstakingly tried not to appear as antagonizing the US, so it has cultivated close ties with Israel. Moscow's role in the Quartet overseeing the Middle East peace process is not that important regarding a settlement of the Palestine issue. Rather, this is a vehicle to convey to the Americans and Europeans that Russia does not in any way harm Israel's interests. At the same time, this multilateral instrument allows Moscow to conceal - at the Arab street level - that its direct relations with the Israelis are in fact more substantial than they appear to those who think of the Kremlin as defending the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Russia's coquetry with organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah allows it to score points in the Arab region. Another way of not arousing suspicion is Moscow's attempt to forge ever-closer ties with those Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel, notably Egypt and Jordan. Here, too, cooperation in arms and energy diffuses the impression that Russian activities may ultimately turn into threats.
Until now, Moscow's ambitions have flourished because Russia has successfully told its separate audiences across the Atlantic, around the Mediterranean and in the Gulf what each side wants to hear. Until the Russian invasion of Georgia this may have appeared innocent; it is not anymore.
As a lack of attention to Russia's policies has paved the way to disaster in Georgia, so too ignoring the Kremlin's attempt to effect a Middle East comeback is dangerous. In the new Cold War, support for Moscow in any matter whatsoever will be looked upon as a policy statement. Arab governments would be well advised to recall their experience of the old Cold War. Getting lost in contradictions does not pay in the long term.
Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze is ambassador of Georgia to Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. This commentary, which first appeared at the bitterlemons-international.org online newsletter, is written in a private capacity and reflects her personal opinion alone.
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